Who Didn’t Apply for DACA and Why it Matters

By Michele Statz
November 7, 2017

Even without attacks from the White House, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has already been restricted in many ways. This becomes immediately apparent when we consider how—and which—immigrant youth have been represented in relation to it. Amidst, or perhaps because of, limited engagement with Asian youth directly, immigrant advocacy on behalf of Chinese youth in particular has largely relied on presumptions of gendered and racialized vulnerability. Though not often considered, these (mis)representations matter, impacting youths’ trust in policy and further underscoring the contingent nature of DACA’s duration and success.

Neglected Numbers

Asian immigrants are more likely than the total immigrant population to have arrived in the U.S. since 2010. Likewise, they are more likely to be naturalized citizens. But while the majority of Asian immigrants arrive in the U.S. via authorized channels, they are also the fastest growing population of unauthorized immigrants. Between 2009 and 2013, approximately 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants from Asia resided in the U.S., representing 14 percent of the estimated 11 million unauthorized. As of 2016, India, China, and the Philippines were the primary sending countries of both of authorized and unauthorized immigrants—and also of lawful permanent residents—in the U.S.  to the U.S.

Despite these trends, Asian immigrants have had some of the lowest application rates to DACA. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 84% of eligible Mexican youth and 83% of eligible Salvadoran youth have sought protection, but only 16% of eligible Korean youth and 28% of eligible Filipino youth applied for DACA in 2016.

Significantly, the government reported no data for DACA applicants from China as of March 2017—the numbers were too small to report. This does not mean that there were no immediately eligible Chinese youth; after all, following Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, China sends the largest number of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. In 2016, there were approximately 25,000 Chinese youth immediately eligible for DACA, but a year later, only 740 Chinese youth were active DACA holders.

It’s worth noting, particularly in light of the gendered depictions of unauthorized Chinese youth discussed below, that DACA applications have consistently split fairly evenly across genders (though applicants from Asia and Europe are more likely to be male).

Males represent slightly more of the unauthorized youth population in the U.S., considerably more of unaccompanied youth, and are 1.4 times more likely than females to have DACA applications denied.

There are diverse explanations for the low DACA application rates among young Chinese and Asian immigrants more broadly, including a reluctance to discuss legal status at the community level owing to shame and stigma; concerns over the impact of DACA on unauthorized family members; cost; limited linguistically- and regionally-accessible DACA educational and media coverage directed toward diverse Asian communities; lack of trust in political institutions, both in countries of origin and in the U.S.; and a history of discrimination against Asian populations, particularly via exclusion era immigration laws.


Eligible and Invisible

There are additional, though less considered, reasons for Asians’ low DACA application rates. As my own research evidences, how—and if—young migrants are depicted in media and policy proves profoundly consequential to youths’ engagement with the immigration system.

Critical activists and scholars necessarily highlight the prevalence of bounded, exclusive, and even fetishized constructions of an ideal and “deserving” Dreamer (i.e., a youth who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act and is or could be a DACA beneficiary), though these strategic framings (and their critiques) tend to center on Latinx youth. So, too, has much of the media coverage around the Trump administration’s recent rescission of DACA. There have been some exceptions, of course, but when media coverage has centered on DACA-mented Asian American youth, it has largely perpetuated the stereotype of the “deserving” immigrant.

The application of the model-minority trope to Asian youth is unsurprising, given the history of racialized constructions of immigrants and il/legality in U.S. political and public discourse.

Once the dominant public image of “the illegal immigrant,” Asian Americans are often now racially framed as “honorary whites.” A well-documented source of hostility and discrimination, the trope of the model minority powerfully contributes to the relative invisibility of Asian American youth in research, advocacy, policy, and public discourse around immigration.


“The Young Girl from China”

A corollary to the model minority/invisible Asian immigrant youth is the vulnerable and gendered Asian immigrant youth. Since 2010, I have been conducting research on public interest immigration advocacy on behalf of young Chinese migrants who have arrived alone and clandestinely to the U.S. and have been apprehended and placed in removal proceedings. This group of youth is socioeconomically, linguistically, and legislatively distinct from those eligible for DACA (though “unaccompanied” youth and their families have also been targeted by the Trump administration), yet discourses of deservingness exceed these differences, filtering and constraining the experiences and opportunities available to young Asian immigrants more generally.

Through rigorous analysis of immigrant advocacy organizations’ promotional materials and policy reports, my research demonstrates that the standardized and pseudonymous Chinese youth/client is almost unfailingly portrayed as a vulnerable young girl, a victim of her family and “Chinese Culture” writ large.

These depictions are a manifestation of the racialized hierarchy first instituted via Chinese exclusion laws, with stereotypes of Chinese parents as racially inferior and coercive put forth to underscore the vulnerability necessary for “deservingness” in the discretionary state, and likewise the appropriateness of legal professionals to “care” for youth.

Fei-Yen’s parents forbade her to attend school and made her work long hours. When she resisted a forced marriage, they beat her. She fled from China to the United States and applied for asylum.

Mei” is a young girl from China… Mei’s family is very poor. They told Mei that she could “help” to pay back the money by working off the debt in the U.S. In other words, it appears that Mei—a child with no skills and no English ability—was sent to the U.S. for forced labor… Mei’s case is now being handled by a well-respected law firm. And, her situation has improved considerably.

In many ways, these narratives underscore the vulnerability demanded by humanitarianism, in which the complex specificities of individuals are reconstituted as “pure victims in general.”

The gendered aspects of this framing also draw on what Jyoti Sanghera describes as “the dominant anti-trafficking discourse,” popular depictions of young Asian women as “compulsorily vulnerable and innocent.”

More broadly, these narratives preclude the visibility of relational, mobile, and agentive—let alone male or non-binary—Asian migrants. That such blatantly and impossibly narrow depictions are also relatively successful in eliciting support, sympathy, and funding also indicates that most advocates know little about the complex lives of Asian youth. (Notable exceptions are the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and nascent youth-led Asian and Pacific Islander organizations, though these are largely clustered on the east and west coasts). The profound consequence is that the transnational relationships, responsibilities, and expectations of young immigrants are either not seen or are powerfully misrepresented or diminished in public discourse. This leaves little hope for meaningful policy and advocacy and even less hope that young people will trust initiatives like DACA. How can legislation protect those it does not “see”?


— Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus. Her new book, Lawyering an Uncertain Cause: Immigration Advocacy and Chinese Youth in the U.S. (Vanderbilt University Press), will be out in 2018.

— Image originally appeared in A Treacherous Journey